By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007
A federal judge in Vermont yesterday rejected an attempt by automakers to block individual states from adopting their own standards for limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.
Judge William Sessions III of U.S. District Court in Burlington ruled that state action to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles -- standards that originated in California in 2002 and have since been adopted by Vermont and at least 10 other states -- was not preempted by federal rules on vehicle fuel economy.
The decision follows a Supreme Court ruling in April that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the Clean Air Act by declining to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. It also comes as automakers are confronted with growing public demand and governmental pressure to build more fuel-efficient vehicles. This fall, Congress is to take up vehicle fuel-efficiency legislation that could bring about the biggest change in fuel-economy laws since the 1970s.
General Motors of Detroit and DaimlerChrysler of Stuttgart, Germany, along with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and a group of Vermont car dealers, had sued Vermont to block rules calling for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 2016. In his ruling, Sessions wrote that he "remained unconvinced" about automakers' claims that they could not make cars and trucks with cleaner emissions.
Sessions pointed out automakers' "intensive efforts" in innovations including hybrid technology, clean diesel engines and alternative fuels such as ethanol, to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. "History suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges," he wrote.
Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons from leaky car air conditioners.
In finding that federal fuel-economy rules did not overrule those adopted by the states, Sessions wrote that Congress, through federal law, had designated California the "proving ground for innovation in emissions control regulations."
The states, environmental groups and the auto industry have clashed in the courts for years over global warming. Last year, California sued six automakers, claiming that car and truck emissions damage the environment and endanger public health. Following yesterday's decision, the governors of 13 states issued a letter calling on car companies to withdraw other legal challenges to the California standards.
Environmentalists are pressing the Bush administration to grant California a waiver from the EPA that it needs before its emissions standards can take effect. If California is granted the waiver, Vermont and other states, including Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut, would be allowed under the federal Clean Air Act to adopt standards identical to California's.
If California is denied a waiver, the Vermont rules are invalid, Sessions wrote.
Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said automakers support improving fuel economy standards nationally rather than piecemeal. McCurdy, in a statement, said the alliance was considering an appeal.
The alliance has argued that California's emissions rules are so strict that they would require extensive design changes to vehicles, driving up prices and crippling sales. Industry lawyers have said the carmakers have to take into account safety, performance and cargo space in combination with improvements in fuel economy.
David Doniger, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said yesterday that the auto industry should reevaluate its legal strategy of fighting the global-warming rules, given yesterday's setback.
"This should finally be the wake-up call that car companies can't ignore global warming," said Doniger, who helped argue the Vermont case. "Up until now, there's been a lot of green talk at auto shows. But they are fighting tooth and nail in the courts to block any real standards, and today they lost."